ESPN 30 for 30: When the Garden was Eden (2014)

Directed by Michael Rapaport

The New York Knicks are one of the most famed NBA franchises in the history of the league, but the NBA was not always so popular. Rising from the depths of crummy gyms, the New York Knicks overcame the popularity of the college game in New York City to become the toast of the town and its famed arena, Madison Square Garden. What is so curious about this particular entry into the series is its proximity to the similar Bad Boys, about the team building development of the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s to overcome the powerhouses of Boston and Los Angeles. Another curiosity, the director, Michael Rapaport. A selection reminiscent of the entries produced by NBA, MLB and other league-centric production companies, Rapaport is a fan of the Knicks, and as such, delivers a sugary celebration of a great NBA team.

After seeing the success of Bad Boys, I can’t help but feel like this entry is just a bit stale in comparison, and I think that has to do with the personalities involved. The Pistons were larger than life and full of very unique, polarizing figures. While the Knicks may not have been polarizing, they were certainly larger than life, which means their inability to pop off the screen in this film is the fault of director Rapaport to mesh the story in the same fashion the team meshed on and off to court to deliver two championships to the city of New York.With names like Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson and Jerry Lucas, this team was loaded with talent, but it was coach Red Holzman who brought them all together to play as a defensive powerhouse and true champions.

What is truly remarkable about this particular team is its blend of talent of smarts. Bill Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar, who of course later became a politician and even competed for the Democratic nomination for the 2000 Presidential election. Jerry Lucas was a near savant, who could remember who words backwards and developed his own language with Bradley to communicate on court. Dick Barnett later became a Ph.D. This was no ordinary bunch, and certainly a far cry from today, which sees droves of NBA players who never entered collage, or most certainly never finished. It’s a completely different game than it ever used to be, but the fame and attention of today can trace its origins to this Knicks team, whose outfits became a competition to see who could be more dashing.

It is endearing to see a film so lovingly directed toward a memory of times of success, of joy and entertainment. But with that territory also comes the self indulgence of a fan, famous as Michael Rapaport may be, taking the time to relive his childhood with his childhood heroes. It doesn’t always work, and for someone like myself, neither an NBA or Knicks fan in particular, the film becomes trying. The high points bring me in, while the reminiscences are more clique than inviting. Without any prior knowledge of the league or the team, I was left out in the cold and instead of reliving the “glory days”, I got the Clif Notes of the team and never had a chance to see the depth of a team that gelled so well and won two championships.

That assessment may not have been entirely fair to the film or fans of the team itself, but Rapaport never does quite infuse the film with an energy that evokes the passion, camaraderie and accomplishment of the team, which is a real shame. After seeing over 100 films from ESPN, it starts to become quite obvious when we get a superb versus a standard, or sub-standard installment in the series. The best films in the series usually are the unique stories, or at least the ones that create an angle and an energy for the topic they cover. For When the Garden was Eden, neither holds true, and what results is a fairly typical profile of a excellent NBA team, fueled by talent, great coaching, and a true sense of team building that often gets overlooked in today’s game of throwing millions of dollars at good players to try and find a winner.

**1/2 – Average

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